When I was a boy of about eight or ten years old, I undertook a brief experiment in gardening. I was told that a particular piece of ground in our back yard was mine to use, and I was given some packages of seeds and a few instructions and set to work.
Well, that morning I cleared that plot of weeds and I dug it up. I punched little holes in the earth and carefully poked the seeds in place. I covered the seeds with the earth, poured water over the whole thing, and then sat down to watch. Well? Well? No plants? I did everything I was supposed to do; so where are the plants?
I was told that I would have to wait, that I had done about all I could do for now, but I would just have to wait. And so I waited – until the next morning. And went out. And still no plants: nothing, not a thing. Why not? I was told that I would have to wait some more, quite a lot more.
The third morning, out again, and still nothing visible. So I dug up a couple of seeds to see what was happening. Maybe they couldn't get up through the clods; maybe they were growing down instead of up – I mean, when you look at a seed, they don't print "This End Up" anywhere on them. I found some of my three-day old seeds, but didn't see anything happening. By now I was convinced that this enterprise was doomed to failure, that I had a brown thumb instead of a green one, and besides, by now it was boring, boring, boring. So I quit.
A few days later I happened by my little garden and found there was something I hadn't seen before: little yellowish green shoots here and there. Where did they come from? I hadn't seen anything coming up, hadn't heard any earthquakes, but there they were. Evidences of life. Wow, I was a gardener after all.
And so I sat down to watch these critters grow. Let's watch nature at work. And so I sat, and I sat, and I sat, and saw nothing. Just little yellowish green shoots. Was that it? This is gardening? This is a crop? Forget it … boring, boring, boring.
But I do not need to tell you what happened. Slowly, imperceptibly, over the next days and weeks, those little shoots did grow and did multiply. I never actually saw them do it but somehow they did. And after a while this boy's garden got to the place where his mother said, “You'd better clear that thing out – looks like a jungle.
And yet I never actually saw it grow. No matter how long I sat and stared at it, I did not see a plant inch up, I did not observe a blossom unfolding, I did not with my eyes notice it when a stalk developed a new branch. So slowly, so slowly; and yet, as I learned, so surely.
The apostle James must have observed the same sort of thing. At least the folks for whom he wrote his letter must have seen it, and understood it, because James noted that the farmer has to wait for the precious fruit of the earth, that he has to be patient and wait over it until it receives the early rain and the latter rain, until it matures. And, says James, just as the farmer does all that he can do, and then is called upon simply to be patient, to wait, so you, Christian, are called upon to be patient, to wait, for what? For the coming of the Lord. And his cry to us is, "Establish your hearts, be patient, establish your hearts, be steadfast", for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Those early Christians, not many years after a first-hand experience of the risen and ascended Christ, were anxious that the work of God be completed. They had seen that God had now planted the seed and watered and nourished it, that what God was about in the grand sweep of human history was in fact being accomplished. And so like the boy and his garden, they were now sitting back and saying, Well? Well? Where is it? Where is the Christ who is to come again? Where is the wrap up? We're ready, Lord, go ahead, finish.
To them James says, It's coming, it's coming. Be patient. It's coming, the Lord is on his way. Trust me. Be patient. Be like the farmer who plants his crop and waters it, but then can do no more, and slowly, imperceptibly it comes, surely it comes. You can scarcely see it, but it comes. And though the coming of Christ may be slow, surely he comes. Though his return is not apparent on your timetable, surely he comes. Be patient, establish your hearts, for he comes. His coming is, in fact, at hand.
Ah, but now some two thousand years have passed. And are we still to be patient? Twenty centuries almost, and still he is not present in all his glory. Was James mistaken? Was the expectation of the early church that the Christ would return in justice and in glory – was that all misguided? Two thousand years of patience – is that not enough, is that not in fact, too much patience, and we ought to quit expecting the unexpectable? Can you and I in 1987 stlll find any reason to believe that the Christ will yet come In glory and power? Does the admonition of James, "Be patient until the coming of the Lord" still have relevance for us? Two thousand years of patience: can we still hear James command us, "Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand." Two thousand years, a very long time.
But remember my garden. If you had been able to place there one of these cameras that is set to take a picture every so often and then to blend these shots all together in one continuous piece, you would have seen progress. You would have seen motion. You know what I'm talking about, don't you? The photographers for National Geographic do this all the time; so do Walt Disney's nature photographers. The camera focuses on a flower; it takes a photograph maybe just a few times each day, and then they run these single shots in a sequence on motion picture film, and you discover that flower opening up, you see that stalk shooting skyward, you find that although your eye cannot discern it, there is growth, there is motion, it's there.
And so as you and I discern two thousand years of Christian history, there is reason to be patient, for there is reason to see the coming of the Lord – if not yet in full and final glory, still in a thousand thousand smaller ways, the coming of the Lord. And we have reason to hear and trust the word of the apostle James, "Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand."
Once the Gospel was confined to handfuls of believers scattered through the relatively narrow confines of the Mediterranean world. Today the Gospel is heard in every land and the Scriptures are read in more than three thousand languages, and millions name the name of Christ. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is real, it is at hand.
Once the evils of slavery and the degradation of segregation held sway throughout this land. Men and women suffered the rebuke of the taskmaster and the humiliation of Jim Crow. But in the steadfastness of their faith they chose to believe that the coming of the Lord with justice was at hand; they established their hearts and waited, seeing day by day and year by year the slow but certain working of the Lord Christ. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Today the scourge of war and the plight of poverty are still with us, but I am seeing and hearing signs of hope all across this planet, wherever there are men and women of faith who can be patient and can see that the Christ will work His will.
Today the cancers of ignorance and the blight of hunger still take their terrible toll in far too many places around this beautiful blue marble, and yet, and yet … if I can spiritually live out two thousand years of patience, I can perceive the slow but certain coming of the Christ. I can recognize that it is not in vain that we have prayed so many times, "Thy Kingdom come." And so hear James again: "Establish your hearts, be patient, for the coming of the Lord is at hand." Two thousand years of patience, all right … still it will be. It will be.
And so we approach the Lord's table this morning, where we have been commanded, "This do in remembrance of him, until he come again." Until he come … coming to the Table of the Lord is an exercise in patience, an exercise in faith and in establishing our hearts.
When we come to the Lord's Table, we are saying that we, like two thousand years of Christians ahead of us, will be patient yet a little more. When we arrive at this place, we are claiming the gift of patience for ourselves and we are affirming that we have seen the flower blossoming, slowly but surely. We have seen and tasted the risen Christ and we know that He is on the way, in justice and in mercy. And so we will here establish our hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Remember, He is the risen Christ; the flower of the future has budded already here.
When we come to the Lord's Table and remember that yet He will come, however slowly, yet He is doing His work of building the Kingdom – when we come here we will remember that nothing of true worth is built overnight. As I said to you a few weeks ago when we talked together about securing our foundations as a church, nothing worthwhile is built quickly. It is painstakingly slow, but it will be done. President Roosevelt said to Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Yalta Conference toward the end of the Second World War that he hoped they could finish their work of rebuilding the world's order in five or six days. Churchill replied that it seemed most unlikely that a task of such scope could be done that quickly, that even the Lord Almighty took seven days! Here at the Lord's Table we recognize that the Kingdom comes slowly, by human standards, but it does come. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
As you eat this bread and drink this cup, you do remember and proclaim the Lord's death, ‘til he come. Establish your hearts; bring here if you must two thousand years of patience, but establish your hearts. He is coming.